RUSSIA - UKRAINE

Crimea is being forced into 'Russification'

Nearly six months after its annexation by Russia, Crimea – formerly an autonomous region in Ukraine – is rapidly undergoing “Russification”. Although the Russian-speaking majority appears satisfied with this change, the Ukrainian-speaking minority says it is being discriminated against by the new regime. On Sunday, a small group who gathered to celebrate Ukrainian Independence Day were stopped by the police.

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An activist plants a Ukrainian flag on the peak of Ai-Petri, the highest point in Crimea, on August 23.

Nearly six months after its annexation by Russia, Crimea – formerly an autonomous region in Ukraine – is rapidly undergoing “Russification”. Although the Russian-speaking majority appears satisfied with this change, the Ukrainian-speaking minority says it is being discriminated against by the new regime. On Sunday, a small group who gathered to celebrate Ukrainian Independence Day were stopped by the police.

On August 24, 1991, Ukraine proclaimed its independence from the Soviet Union. Since then, this date has been set as Ukraine's national holiday. In this extremely tense setting, while the separatist pro-Russia militia clashed with the Ukrainian army in the east, commemorations were particularly important in both the capital Kiev and in the western part of the country. In Sebastopol, Crimea, a dozen pro-Ukrainians also attempted to celebrate the holiday. Our Observer Vikor Neganov, a former coordinator of Sebastopol's pro-Ukrainian Euromaidan movement, was there.

“I wanted to express my Ukrainian pride”

I met up with several people in one place in the centre of the city, where there was formerly a statue of Petro Sahaïdatchny, an important figure for Ukrainians. The statue was taken down after Russia's annexation, but the base is still there, and we unfolded the Ukrainian flag on it. We were there for 20 minutes without any problem. Then, as I was leaving with a friend, policemen came to arrest us. I asked them why, several times, but they did not respond. They brought me to the station; they searched my car, my bag, and all of my things. Then they let me go after three hours, with no explanations. I had done this to express my Ukrainian pride. To me, there was nothing illegal about it, even if I knew I was taking a risk: most of the people in Crimea are pro-Russian, and the pro-Ukrainians are looked down upon and are increasingly becoming victims of discrimination.

Video of Viktor Neganov’s arrest on August 24 in Sebastopol.

The day before, a pro-Ukrainian activist symbolically planted the Ukrainian flag on the peak of Ai-Petri, the highest point in Crimea.

On August 8, the Deputy Secretary General of Human Rights, Ivan Simonovic, lamented the increase of “harassment and discrimination” by the new regime towards the Ukrainians of Crimea, as well as towards the Tatars, a Muslim minority representing 12 percent of the population, and other religious minorities. He estimated that the freedoms of expression, association, peaceful assembly, and religion have not been granted. Between 15,000 and 18,000 people have fled Ukraine since the referendum on March 16. Russia has already made its mark on the entirety of the peninsula: residents are already being given Russian passports; prices are now in rubles; Ukrainian banks and service stations have been replaced by Russian equivalents; and Russian flags have been hoisted everywhere. According to our Observer, this new environment is not a good place to be pro-Ukrainian.

“We could be denounced at any moment. It’s like we’re back in the USSR”

Vitaly (not his real name) is pro-Ukrainian, and lives in Sebastopol.

 

I did not dare demonstrate on Sunday; it was much too risky for me. I was afraid: I am in opposition to the Russian annexation, and I feel that the police might stop me at any moment, just on the pretext that I am Ukrainian. A number of Russian speakers feel all too at home, and are “taking revenge” on Ukrainians. It is not unusual to be denounced and accused of supporting Ukraine on false pretexts. It's better to be careful of what you say in the street... It is not the Russia of Boris Yeltsin; this is really like going back to the USSR.”

Some Ukrainian policemen have traded their uniform without hesitation and Moscow has sent a large number of Russian policemen to work with them. But above all, the independent militia that formed during the crisis still exists, and they make the rules. They make arbitrary arrests, then bring the people to the police.

Many things have changed. The minorities are oppressed: the Tatars do not have the right to commemorate the day of their deportation by Stalin on May 18. The Constitution stipulates three official languages, but it is not true – everything is done in Russian. The prices have skyrocketed in the supermarkets, and if some pensions and salaries have increased, support for large families and single mothers has been significantly decreased. But to me, the most notable change is that we may no longer elect our mayors: they will now be chosen by local representatives, who will be elected Russian-style… Suffice to say that Ukrainians are no longer represented in any way. I did not go pick up my Russian passport. I will wait until they force me. I do not feel Russian and I do not want to wait in line to betray my country.

 

“Russia is much more bureaucratic but thus more organised”

Serguey Goulenko is a Russian-speaking journalist with the Crimean edition of the Russian newspaper Komsomol’skaya Pravda.

Those who demonstrated are provocateurs; they are not representative of all the Crimean people. A large majority of the population is happy to be annexed by Russia. You only have to look at the endless lines of people picking up their Russian passports.

As the Russian administration is put into place, there is more paperwork than before. I had to change all of my insurance, and get new papers for my car and for my apartment. But at the same time, there is something reassuring about that. Russia is much more bureaucratic, but thus more organised. In terms of the police, the restoration of order is reassuring as well: the Ukrainian police were very poorly paid and were living mostly off corruption. The Russians cleaned up some of those bad practices, and raised salaries, so the police are using these disreputable practices less often.

The salaries and the pensions have been tremendously increased, in the private sector and especially in the public sector. One of my friends, a teacher, saw her pay increase from 9,000 (190 euros) to 20,000 rubles (420 euros)! Generally speaking, the population feels that everything has changed for the better, even if things are far from being perfect. The prices in the supermarkets have increased and the tourist season was very poor, but that will improve, especially when we get linked to Russia by the bridge over the Kerch Strait, which will be great for our economy.